Service and Citizenship
Tibor R. Machan
Once again a famous public figure chimes in with complaints about how
America has seen the end of the connection between service and
citizenship. I am talking about David M. Kennedy?s Op Ed in The New York
Times, a recent exercise in finger wagging if there ever was one.
Let?s just see?must there be a connection between service and citizenship
in the first place? Dr. Kennedy, who is a professor of history at Stanford
University, believes that serving in the military should be coerced, that
conscription is best, and that a volunteer military is a mercenary
To start with, those are false alternatives?volunteers can be far more
dedicated and dutiful than conscripts, although they also get paid.
Indeed, citizenship is antithetical to a certain kind of service, to
servitude. It was prior to the emergence of citizenship, when those living
in a country were deemed to be subjects and serfs, that service was big on
the agenda for everyone. They were all supposed to serve the king and the
upper classes. With the emergence of citizenship came the idea that people
lived for their own goals, not those of the king and his buddies.
So, yes, in a sense American society has abandoned the insidious notion
that people are to serve the state or monarch or some other self-selected
bunch as soldiers or anything else, for that matter. Sovereignty for
everyone means just that?none of us is a conscript to other people and
their purposes for us. But perhaps there is another, more benign sense of
service, the disappearance of which is being lamented, although I am not
sure. But let?s be charitable?the service Mr. Kennedy may have in mind is
helping our fellow human beings when they are in need, being generous,
even charitable, to those who are in dire straits. Maybe it?s this that he
sees disappearing from American society.
Here is an idea: Maybe the welfare state itself is to blame. After all,
when we are taught by our public philosophers that people have a right to
public assistance?health care, minimum wages, unemployment compensation,
education and so forth?the idea might come across that as with all rights,
all that?s required from everyone is to stand aside. Your right to your
life is, after all, something everyone respects by standing aside, by not
murdering you. Same with your right to freedom of speech or religion?these
require for others to abstain from intrusive conduct, period.
Generosity or charity, being of service to those who are in need, on the
other hand requires of us that we do something for people of our own free
will, because we deem it the right thing to do, not because they are
entitled. I help others not because I am their servant but because I
believe I should help them. If I have already been coerced to support all
those government entitlement programs, my helpfulness becomes moot.
So, it seems, what is undermining service is actually that forced service
that everyone must be part of, the welfare state. It is this insidious,
coercive program of assistance to all, deserving or not, that has produced
the demoralization that shows up in people not going that extra yard to
help their needful fellows. And who is to blame for this? The very people,
like Mr. Kennedy, who are eager to put us all into the service of others,
into what is best called plain old involuntary servitude.
What Mr. Kennedy & Co. do not seem to appreciate is that coercion kills
generosity and charity and, yes, service. It substitutes forced taking and
labor for free giving. It
turns citizens into subjects, people whose own will doesn?t count and who
must, instead, bow to the dictates of the government and fork over their
resources not because they are convinced there is a worthy goal to be
served but because a gun is pointed at them and they have no choice but to
come up with their resources to fend off that gun.
Is it any wonder that under such a system voluntary help?even voluntary
military service?is a bit hard to come by?